THE Oklahoman has long supported government transparency, particularly regarding how taxpayer funds are spent. But taxpayers who expect government to protect their sensitive personal information are not unreasonable. A proposal to restrict release of farmers' and ranchers' information shows the tension between those two goals.
This year the Environmental Protection Agency released the names, phone numbers, addresses and other personal information of 80,000 people involved with feedlots and other agriculture businesses. The EPA provided that sensitive information to three environmental groups that filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
The disclosures affected people in 29 states, including some who reportedly owned no livestock at all. The U.S. has about 20,000 confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The extra 60,000 names included a wide range of rural citizens who were justifiably upset.
Individuals impacted by the release of that information — which the EPA later acknowledged shouldn't have occurred — had legitimate reason for concern. Some farmers have reportedly had property vandalized by members of environmental fringe groups. In a worst-case scenario, rural citizens must worry that the EPA's release of personal information will allow them to be targeted by the most extreme environmental groups, which have engaged in terrorist activity.
In response, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., has called for instituting a stronger prohibition on the government release of farmers' physical addresses and other personal identifying information. That proposed law has drawn opposition.
A coalition of 43 groups, including several journalism organizations, issued a letter opposing the change, declaring, “Members of the public have a right to know about agricultural and livestock operations that affect them, including where such operations are located. This information is especially critical for people who live near or share waterways with concentrated animal feeding operations.”
It's a stretch to suggest Crawford's adjustment to public disclosure rules will keep people from realizing they live near property where livestock are fed. You don't need to file a freedom of information request when you can plainly see hundreds of grazing cattle in your neighbor's pasture. In cases involving a CAFO operation, neighbors don't even have to see the animals or the barns. The smell alone is usually a dead giveaway. Government regulations regarding land and water use would remain in effect, so environmental protections aren't eliminated by Crawford's proposal.
Even so, Crawford's legislation appears unnecessary. When the EPA released citizens' personal information, Ashley McDonald, deputy environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, noted the agency's action appeared to violate U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding the protection of personal information under Freedom of Information Act requests, the federal Privacy Act and the EPA's own guidelines.
If EPA personnel are willing to ignore that many laws and regulations, why would they flinch at breaking one more? This is similar to gun control proponents who claim criminals who use firearms to commit theft and murder will suddenly become law-abiding if faced with a fine for failure to register a weapon.
As with gun control, a better solution would be to enforce existing laws, not enact new ones. It appears the problem at the EPA isn't that there are insufficient safeguards to protect farmers' and ranchers' personal information, but that some EPA officials believe they are above the law. That's reason for all citizens — rural and urban — to be concerned.